Don’t dare dismiss women as nags in fight against domestic sexism – Susan Dalgety

Michelle and Barack Obama are intellectual equals, but still she replaced the lost socks and made sure the kids had juice boxes (Picture: Mark Wilson/Getty)
Michelle and Barack Obama are intellectual equals, but still she replaced the lost socks and made sure the kids had juice boxes (Picture: Mark Wilson/Getty)
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Women do most of the essential household tasks and the ‘emotional labour’ that keeps a family happy, which can be exhausting and damage their careers, writes Susan Dalgety.

The chief elf of Christmas cooking, the irrepressible, and slightly annoying, Jamie Oliver, makes the festive season look effortless.

“Hi guys, get your Christmas off to a massive bang,” he booms at the start of his “quick and easy” holiday special, before introducing a series of impossibly cute children with rather stupid names, like River Rocket and Buddy Bear.

He tosses some rosemary-encrusted dough on to a baking tray, glugs some cider, then, without breaking a sweat, produces the moistest, juiciest, most “epic” turkey imaginable.

“That my friends is a beautiful, beautiful thing,” he boasts, as he steps back in awe at his own culinary genius.

Aah, if only real-life mirrored Jamie Oliver’s tastefully decorated TV kitchen, where the man of the house cheerfully prepares a Michelin-standard Christmas meal, while staying perfectly sober and keeping the children amused, allowing his wife to soak away the year’s cares in a rose-scented bath.

A peek into the nation’s kitchens will likely show a different tableau. A red-faced woman, squeezed into last year’s H&M party dress, will be struggling to stuff a half-frozen turkey, while stopping her over-excited children from killing each other with Nerf guns and desperately WhatsApping her sister to beg, “Can you bring some cranberry sauce. I forgot to buy the bloody stuff. And bring more fizz.”

Her partner, meanwhile, will be relaxing on the new sofa that she ordered just in time for Christmas, sipping the new craft ale that she picked up on her way home from work, admiring the gorgeous tree that she decorated, after spending hours trawling Pinterest for inspiration. He will be content knowing his mother loves the M&S cashmere jumper she chose. Happy that his second cousin in Australia got his Christmas card in plenty of time, thanks to her up-to-date address book. And when Christmas is over, he can return to work secure in the knowledge that she will make sure that there is always milk in the fridge, plenty of loo roll on hand and everyone’s dental appointments are up to date, all while holding down a full-time job of course.

Emotional labour is a term coined by American sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983 when she wrote about managing emotions at work in her book ‘The Managed Heart’.

Her definition of emotional labour is the pressure of showing the “right” feeling for a job, whether as a waitress smiling through aching feet or a teacher hiding her PMT in front of a class of admiring five-year-olds.

“It involves evoking and suppressing feelings. Some jobs require a lot of it, some a little of it,” she explained recently.

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But, slightly to her academic chagrin, the term has been adopted by a new generation of feminists to describe the unacknowledged work women do to make a house a home.

The poster girl of emotional labour is Gemma Hartley, whose 2017 article in Harper’s Bazaar went viral and inspired her new book ‘Fed Up: Emotional Labour, Women and the Way Forward’.

She defines emotional labour as “the unpaid, invisible work we do to keep those around us comfortable and happy”.

“It envelops many other terms associated with the type of care-based labour ... emotion work, the mental load, mental burden, domestic management, clerical labour, invisible labour.”

Every woman will recognise the mental burden of planning a week’s meals while on the bus to work; of suddenly remembering, in the middle of a sales meeting, that she needs to buy Jack new trainers before his feet become disfigured.

Every woman has woken up at three in the morning in a cold sweat, fearful that she has forgotten her sister-in-law’s birthday (again), while her husband snores blissfully beside her.

And every woman carries a to-do list as long this year’s hemlines, with things to buy, urgent stuff to do, people to call, plans to make, ideas for next year’s holiday, doctor’s appointments, gymnastic classes, on and on and on.

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Michelle Obama, in her best-selling and beautifully written memoir, ‘Becoming’, writes powerfully about the pressures of emotional labour and of her regular lunchtime forays to a Chicago strip mall.

“This was my place. I could park the car, whip through two or three stores as needed, pick up a burrito bowl and be back at my desk inside sixty minutes. I excelled at the lunchtime blitz – the replacing of lost socks, the purchasing of gifts for whatever five-year-old was having a birthday party on Saturday, the stocking and restocking of juice boxes ...”

Michelle was the director of community affairs at a major hospital when she made these guerrilla shopping trips. She was a 40-year-old, highly educated, professional woman, with a husband who adored her. They were intellectual equals. She earned as much, if not more, than he did. He prided himself in his progressive attitudes, his belief in equality ... and yet it was Michelle who carried the practical and emotional load of the Obama household, while Barack carved out his political career.

It is all too easy to dismiss women as nags when they dare to complain about the time spent on thankless household tasks, of the meticulous planning required to keep a modern family afloat, but studies show that women consistently perform more essential household tasks – 40 per cent more, according to the Office of National Statistics.

This extra workload entrenches gender inequality. It saps a woman’s energy, sometimes so much that her once glittering career becomes simply a job, and she is forced to watch her unencumbered male peers rise through the ranks while she juggles her domestic and professional responsibilities.

And it is exhausting. A woman may be able to clock out of work, but there is no escape from running a home.

I am an eternal optimist. My own sons do more household tasks than my father would have considered manly. I smile encouragingly when I see a young man struggle off the bus with a buggy, and I delight in teaching my grandson how to cook.

But just as there is a still a long way to go before we achieve true equality in the workplace, so it will be a few decades before emotional labour is a shared endeavour.

Lads, you could make a start this Christmas by following Jamie’s example and cook the turkey, instead of just carving it. After all, the chief elf says it’s quick and easy!